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Tuesday, July 02, 2013

His Words Come Home To Me Like Truth

Speaking of Glory, which is traditionally next on my annual movie pilgrimage into the past, a good bit of it is informed by the letters of Col Shaw.  It opens with Matthew Broderick (who I admit I was skeptical about when I first saw he was cast, but he does very well) doing a voiceover purporting to be a letter to his mother:

Dear Mother, I hope you are keeping well and not worrying too much about me. You mustn't think that any of us are going to be killed; for they are collecting such a force here that an attack would be insane.

The Massachusetts men passed through here this morning. How grand it is to meet the men from all the states, east and west, down here, ready to fight for their country, as the old fellows did in the Revolution. But this time, we must make it a whole country, for all who live here, so that all can speak.

Before this war began, many of my regiment had never seen a Negro. Now the roads are choked with the dispossessed. We fight for men and women whose poetry is not yet written, but which will presently be as enviable and as renowned as any form.

Last night we heard of yet another defeat. But we are not disheartened. I am honored to be part of such a splendid company. They have made me captain, of which I am enormously proud. You would think it strange to see me giving orders to a hundred men, most of whom are older than I am.

Thank you for sending my volume of Emerson. His words come home to me like truth--‘A deep man,' he says, ‘believes that the evil eye can wither, that the heart's blessing can heal, and that love can overcome all odds.'

My dearest love to Father.

Your son, Robert.

I've emphasized three lines: one that I never paid much notice to; one that I've never been able to find in his letters; and one that's a favorite Emerson passage.

The last comes from an essay on beauty, which I've often found inspiring:

'Tis curious that we only believe as deep as we live. We do not think heroes can exert any more awful power than that surface-play which amuses us. A deep man believes in miracles, waits for them, believes in magic, believes that the orator will decompose his adversary; believes that the evil eye can wither, that the heart`s blessing can heal; that love can exalt talent; can overcome all odds. From a great heart secret magnetisms flow incessantly to draw great events.

I've never bothered to find out whether Shaw ever wrote about that to his mother, but it certainly captures his philosophical bent and likely motivations.  As it so happens, though, he doesn't appear to have written the first highlight to his mother.  It was to his sister:

You musn’t be made anxious or uneasy by what I am going to tell you. The President has called for 75,000 men, and the Seventh Regiment is ordered to Washington for its protection, with a great many men from Massachusetts and other States.

You musn’t think, dear Sue, that any of us are going to be killed; for they are collecting such a force there that an attack would be insane,—that is, unless the Southerners can get their army up in an almost impossibly short space of time.

I just stumbled across that today as I was looking for other stuff about the 54th.  Serendipity!

Now, about that poetry line.  It has always struck such a chord with me, making me misty just thinking about being so dedicated to posterity.  Turns out it's actually our dear old friend, Emerson, once again, this time in an essay on spiritual laws:

What we call obscure condition or vulgar society is that condition and society whose poetry is not yet written, but which you shall presently make as enviable and renowned as any. In our estimates, let us take a lesson from kings. The parts of hospitality, the connection of families, the impressiveness of death, and a thousand other things, royalty makes its own estimate of, and a royal mind will. To make habitually a new estimate, - that is elevation.

Grok the truth of that: let us elevate our condition and society to rid ourselves of slavery, of disunion, of racism, of homophobia, of discrimination, of whatever holds us down.  Isn't that what our Revolution and Civil War and Women's Suffrage and the Civil Rights Movement and Reproductive Freedom and Marriage Equality are all about?


July 2, 2013 | Permalink


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